The pandemic has upended the lives of teens in many ways, but one of the most serious effects has been on their sleep schedules. Even before COVID, only about a third of teens got the 8-10 hours that the National Sleep Foundation says is essential. Then the pandemic shattered teens’ routines and caused anxiety to skyrocket, leaving many parents alarmed and unsure of how to help. Here, we’ve gathered the expert research and recommendations you need to get your teen’s sleep back on track.
Why Sleep Matters
Teens need more sleep than adults to support brain development, and a regular sleep schedule is essential for mental, emotional, and physical health. Studies show that teens who are sleep-deprived are more likely to have learning difficulties, like not being able to focus in class or flaking out on homework. They are more susceptible to social and emotional problems, like becoming moody, irritable, reactive or withdrawn. Even more troubling: teens who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors and to be injured. The bottom line? Teens need consistent, restorative sleep, and parents often have to take the lead to make sure they get it.
Why Teens Don’t Get Enough Sleep
43% of parents say their teen has trouble with sleep, according to a 2018 Mott Poll Report. The reasons are complex: 56% of parents blame electronic devices and social media, and 54% say their teens are anxious about school or social life. Many kids have extracurricular activities, after-school jobs, and intense homework requirements. Just like adults, teens often have a hard time juggling their many responsibilities with the need for rest and self-care.
Another factor is the shift in teenage circadian rhythms called the “sleep phase delay.” Around the onset of adolescence, teens naturally begin to feel sleepy around 10 or 11 pm, about two hours later on average than tweens. It’s tough to strike a balance between the sleep phase delay and their need for enough sleep. Many teens, for example, need to wake up around 6 am to get to school on time; that means going to bed by 10 pm at the latest.
Finally, the pandemic’s ongoing effects can’t be overstated. One study found that youth anxiety and depression doubled during the pandemic, and levels remain at the highest ever reported. In addition to the devastating impact on mental health, loss of schedules and structure has been especially hard on teens.
What Parents Can Do
First of all, talk to your teen about sleep. Starting a low-key conversation is the best way to understand how your teen’s sleep, or lack thereof, is affecting them. Many parents struggle with sleep, too, so this can be an opportunity to connect with empathy and seek solutions together. It’s also important to make incremental changes. Baby steps help healthy new habits stick.
Here are six suggestions to get started:
Create a relaxation ritual at bedtime. This works best when the whole family is on board. Agree to a consistent bedtime, then gradually increase device-free time up to about an hour before bed. Shut down the most adrenaline-boosting activities first, like video games, loud TV, and social media. Dim the lights and encourage everyone to slow down. This stimulates teens’ natural sleep cycle and helps them transition into real rest.
Ban devices from bedrooms. We know, we know… this one is hard. But teens (like most adults) aren’t great at setting limits on technology. And besides cutting into sleep time, the blue light produced by LED screens suppresses production of melatonin, a sleep-regulating hormone. Try setting up a family charging station in a central location and buy your teen an old-school alarm clock.
Make physical activity a priority. Teens who exercise regularly get better sleep. One study found that for every extra hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, teens fell asleep 18 minutes earlier and slept 10 minutes longer. If your teen isn’t getting enough activity from P.E. or extracurricular athletics, find fun ways to move as a family (and you’ll sleep better, too!)
Cut down on caffeine. Caffeine makes it harder for kids to get quality sleep. Researchers say teens should avoid anything with caffeine, including soda and chocolate, after 4 pm. Remember that super-caffeinated energy drinks are particularly problematic for teens. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that adolescents not consume energy drinks at all. Teens should not need caffeine to stay awake and alert – if they do, it’s likely that they’re sleep-deprived.
Watch the weekends. Because it’s so difficult for busy teens to get all the sleep they need during the week, many sleep in on the weekend. That’s totally fine, as long as they don’t go overboard. Sleep scientists recommend that teens sleep no later than 2 hours past the time they would normally wake up on a weekday. More than that and they risk scrambling their sleep schedule.
Encourage your teen’s school to move to a later start time. This one’s for extra credit. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that schools start at 8:30 am to give teens the sleep they need to stay alert and learn. Some schools are already making the switch – maybe yours will be next.